Human Rights Organizers with Grand Rapids Ties Face Intimidation in Honduras

Last week, human rights organizers with ties to Grand Rapids by way of a former Calvin College student were subjected to two incidents of intimidation designed to limit their work. A labor lawyer working with the organization Association for a more Just Society (AJS) was murdered for defending the rights of poor security workers while the organization’s board president, Carlos Hernandez, received an anonymous text message on his phone warning him that he would be next. On December 4, Dionisio Diaz Garcia was murdered while en route to court to assist ten security guards whose rights were being violated by the Honduran security firms Delta and SETECH. Delta and SETECH have been the target of a two-year campaign by AJS because of the companies ongoing violations of workers’ rights including failing to pay the minimum wage and failing to pay for overtime. In light of the murder and death threats, AJS is calling on people to send an email to the Honduran government asking for the punishment of Dionisio’s killers, the protection of AJS staff, and the institution of a variety of policies for which AJS has been organizing in support of including barring security companies that violate human rights from bidding on government contracts and the establishment of a process for certifying security companies. The letter also demands that there be a full investigation of Delta and SETECH security and their tax history, violations of labor rights, and connections with organized crime during which time their license to operate be suspended.

For more information on AJS and their work, visit their website or their online journal.

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No One is Illegal

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Justin Akers Chacon and Mike Davis have written one of the most important books of the year, with No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border being essential reading for activists on the left doing organizing and anti-racist work. No One is Illegal examines the history of immigration, anti-immigrant violence, the neoliberal origins of contemporary immigration from Mexico, and a host of other critical topics in a single volume. The insightful conclusions drawn by the authors provide a refreshing departure from the mainstream debate over legality and address migration as human right, not as something that should be restricted based on the needs of capital or politicians. Moreover, the book’s readability also makes it suitable reading for that aunt that many of has who believes much of the Republican and Democratic consensus that jobs are being lost because of immigration and smashes through all of the rightwing distortions on immigration.

The book begins with an 80-page essay by Mike Davis focusing on the history of vigilantism and white racist violence towards immigrants in California. This essay’s examination of the violence of the Ku Klux Klan, Pinkertons, conservative labor unions, and the state provides an important context for seeing the current attack on immigrants—led by organizations such as the Minutemen—as part of a continuum of racist activity by the right and their capitalist allies. This vigilantism has been an essential part of creating the social construct of the “illegal” immigrant and providing a continued push for a rightward shift of immigration policy in the United States. The militarization of the border has continued, with politicians building fences and installing networks of surveillance cameras in response to the media-ready images of vigilantes such as the Minutemen who convey the need for urgent action to close the borders. The book also ties the rise of vigilantism to the struggles of migrant workers for better wages and working conditions, showing that vigilantism and anti-immigrant racism frequently increase at the behest of capitalism and serve both to repress immigrant organizing and to break down cross-race solidarity between oppressed workers. Anti-immigrant sentiment has grown as vigilantes have misplaced legitimate concerns over corporate policies such as outsourcing with immigrants, instead of organizing against the corporations that exploit labor both outside of the United States and domestically. However, far from having arisen simply from confusion on the behalf of white workers, the Minutemen and other contemporary vigilantes have ties to organized white supremacist movements. Neo-nazis have been seen at rallies held both by the Minutemen as well as at those organized by the suburban “Save Our State” movement which has organized anti-immigrant sentiment in areas far from the border.

Much of the book explores the history of immigration within the context of the struggle between labor and capital. Capital has long sought to divide workers and pit those of different industries or races against each other in order to prevent the formation of an organized movement of the working class against the ruling class, with contemporary immigration law and deportation procedures being developed to fragment the working class. Anti-immigrant sentiment arose in part because of this goal, with early immigration restrictions being placed on radicals and anti-immigrant violence being committed by nativists who blamed the Great Railroad Strikes of 1877 on Chinese workers. This racism has continued with the construction of the “illegal” Mexican worker, whose societal contributions are ignored in favor of a variety of myths including the idea that migrant workers are depriving “American” workers of their rights and perceived entitlements. This of course ignores the realities of immigrants’ numerous contributions to society. 75% of undocumented immigrants pay taxes, with $6 billion in Social Security and $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes being unable to be claimed because it was paid by undocumented workers using false social security numbers. Immigrant households further pay an estimated $133 billion in taxes to federal, state, and local governments, while adding as much as $10 billion to the economy annually. Undocumented immigrants contribute in this way because they come to the United States to work, with an estimated 92% of undocumented male workers being employed.

While immigration from Mexico has been restricted by the United States, there has been no attempt by the United States to take into account the origins of this migration. Policy has ignored the fact that immigration is motivated by corporate trade agreements and the displacement of workers by capital, and has instead developed a policy of criminalization. This can be seen with the Presidents Carter and Reagan using concern over an “immigrant invasion” in response to movements against U.S.-supported dictatorships as a justification for increasing the militarization of the border, with Carter increasing the Border Patrol budget by 24% and increasing personnel by 8.7%. Reagan followed Carter’s lead and increased funding by 130%, expanding detention centers, setting up checkpoints, and increasing the number of agents by 82%. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed and cross-designated Border Patrol members as drug enforcement agents. However, it was under President Bill Clinton and Operation Gatekeeper—launched in 1994—that the militarization of the border increased most rapidly. The operation sought to seal the border by closing popular crossing points using a multi-faceted strategy of building fences, increasing personnel, and using military hardware and training. This has included the use of Black Hawk helicopters, heat sensors, night-vision telescopes, and electronic vision detection devices, while the Border Patrol has become the largest federal law enforcement body. This militarization has been a death sentence for migrants, with at least 4,000 dying since 1994.

No One is Illegal is one of the most important books that Media Mouse has seen in a while, being both eminently readable and useful for activists organizing in the present. From its deconstruction of rightwing myths about immigration to its working-class internationalism, No One is Illegal is one of the best short introductions on the topic of immigration to the United States and offers a keen analysis of the current situation as well as a historical analysis that places the current struggle for immigrant rights into its proper context as part of the struggle by the oppressed against the elite.

Justin Akers Chacon and Mike Davis, No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, (Haymarket Books, 2006).

Rethinking Columbus Day Panel Explores the Genocidal Impact of Colonization

On Monday, a panel discussion titled “Rethinking Columbus” examined the legacy of Columbus and the impact of the conquest of the Americas on the indigenous people of the region. The panel also explored the ways in which colonization is an ongoing process.

On Monday, Grand Valley State University’s (GVSU) Native American Student Association and the Office of Multicultural Affairs held a panel discussion titled “Rethinking Columbus” that examined the legacy of Christopher Columbus. The event, organized to fall on the same day as the official “Columbus Day” holiday, was attended by approximately fifty students. The panel featured four panelists—History professor Brian Collier, Modern Languages and Literature professor Yvette Fuentes, Latin American Studies professor Khedija Gahoum, and Jeff Smith of the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID). The four panelists, while addressing a variety of different subjects pertaining to the legacy of Christopher Columbus, generally presented arguments affirming the fact that Christopher Columbus should be viewed not as a hero to be celebrated, but as a criminal who was responsible for setting in motion over five-hundred years of colonization that has resulted in ongoing genocide and racism toward the indigenous populations of the Americas.

The panel began with GVSU history professor Brian Collier who explored the historical origins of Columbus Day as a federal holiday. Collier described that the holiday—“offensive to so many [indigenous] people”—was first celebrated in the 1870s, but during the years of 1908 to 1912 was actively sought by Italian immigrants. He explained that Italian immigrants, coming to the United States out of a context of natural disasters in Italy and a poor economy, sought the holiday as a means of promoting their cultural heritage. At the time, with Italians immigrating in large numbers, opportunistic politicians were willing to support the holiday and it was eventually made a federal holiday without considering the ramifications that celebrating such a holiday would have on indigenous people living within the United States. Collier reminded the audience that over 800 million indigenous people were killed during the colonization of the Americas and that the death toll alone makes the day offensive, but that the day is further a reminder that the dominant culture discounts indigenous knowledge and promotes the superiority of western ways of thinking. He also described the “intellectual genocide” of indigenous people in the United States through the boarding school years, during which eight generations of indigenous people were sent to boarding schools at which they were taught to forget their languages and their tribal ways, forced into a system of colonization without physical violence. He urged the audience to support native communities by looking at the ways in which indigenous knowledge can benefit everyone (for example, the concept of restorative justice rather than punitive justice), supporting full sovereignty for native peoples, and opposing characterizations of native cultures such as Columbus Day parades, “Indian” Halloween costumes, and Thanksgiving pageants.

Following Collier’s presentation, professor Yvette Fuentes discussed the impact that Columbus had on the Taino people who inhabited the Caribbean when Columbus arrived in 1492. The Taino, who were the first to greet Columbus, were promptly enslaved and those who were not enslaved were killed, with a population of an estimated 8 to 10 million in 1493 being exterminated in the course of a few years. Fuentes explained that while this has been the traditional discourse on the fate of the Taino people, there has recently been an effort on the part of indigenous people to reexamine the idea that the Tainos were exterminated. Indigenous people, inspired by the American Indian Movement in the United States, have challenged traditional history that states that the Tainos were primitive or weak because they left no buildings or written language. They have highlighted the fact that many people in the Caribbean observe indigenous traditions and that they have maintained their culture in rural areas and through inter-marriage. This argument is also supported by academic research, with Fuentes citing a 1999 study that found that 61% of the Puerto Rican population carry the mtDNA of indigenous people.

Professor Gadhoum of the Latin American Studies program opened her portion of the discussion with a quote by noted Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano about how America was “not discovered” by Columbus but that it was already there. Gadhoum argued that this was part of the effort of “inventing America” that began with a German cartographer in the 1500s who started to write “America” on maps of the continent and continues to this day as the history of the Americas has been written from a perspective of capitalism that excludes the fact that Columbus introduced ways of life that destroyed native practices. While the Catholic Church famously ruled that indigenous people had no rights in the 1500s, colonization continues today via multinational corporations extracting natural resources that should belong to indigenous people, via the “curse of wealth” where those with greater financial wealth dominate them. Indigenous people are thus either completely marginalized or “exoticized” by the dominant culture. Gadhoum also described how the process of colonization is a process of “de-civilizing” whereby the colonizer engages in rape, hatred, violence, and racism.

Jeff Smith of the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy explained how not only must we view Columbus Day as five-hundred years of colonization, but also as five-hundred years of resistance on the part of indigenous people in the Americas. Smith described how as colonization has continued to take new forms—trade agreements, resource extraction, and the theft of indigenous knowledge—indigenous people have resisted these efforts by being at the forefront of movements organizing around these issues. Smith argued that anyone enjoying neoliberal capitalist culture must understand that their way of life comes at the expensive of indigenous people and that we need to both acknowledge this and honor indigenous resistance by working on the aforementioned issues or confronting racist school mascots that belittle indigenous peoples and beliefs. He described how indigenous people in Mexico have been the most affected by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and that indigenous people in Central America will be the most affected by the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Aside from these economic policies, Smith argued that colonization continues through media representation where indigenous perspectives are only heard of if there is a pow-wow or a casino, but not on any other issues relevant to indigenous communities. Furthermore, indigenous people are relegated to secondary roles in entertainment and never as primary characters. If this and other forms of ongoing colonization of indigenous people is seen as a genocidal policy, Smith argued that they violate international law and that everyone living within countries engaging in such polices have an obligation under international law to stop these policies.

Following the panel, Native American activist Deb Mueller described how colonization began with Columbus and continues through the mockery of sacred items, forced hair cutting, experimentation on women, and other means. This issue is particularly important in Michigan, which has the 9th highest population of Native Americans in the United States and she urged the audience to understand that “Indian country is here” and that there are opportunities for people to either work directly with indigenous people or in solidarity with them on a variety of issues. She explained that thousands of native children like her were socialized to hate who they were through the media, museum exhibits, or through popular forms of entertainment that worked to marginalize native culture. Despite these realities, indigenous people have survived and continue to organize to preserve their culture.

The Profits of Extermination: How U.S. Corporate Power is Destroying Colombia

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For those of you who want to know what the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) will look like, particularly for countries in Latin America, you might want to read The Profits of Extermination: How U.S. Corporate Power is Destroying Colombia. Written by the president of a miners union in Colombia, this book looks at how multinational corporations have used the political process, the courts and military repression to siphon off some of Colombia’s natural resources. Equipped with maps, photos, analysis, and a first hand experience the author provides an excellent case study for anyone who wants a better understanding of what trade policies like NAFTA, CAFTA and the FTAA mean for the majority of those living in the Americas.

First Cuellar looks at what role international agreements have played in rewriting the mining laws of Colombia. The IMF and the World Bank both played a major role in changing the mining laws in the late 1990’s. These international financial institutions were acting on behalf of governments (primarily the US) and corporations like Occidental Petroleum, by offering the Colombian government certain incentives if the law was changed. The ultimate result was what the US/Colombia governments now call Plan Colombia, which despite the claim that it is an anti-terrorism plan, it is primarily a policy to benefit US-based multinationals. It is perhaps best summed up by Bill Richardson, Energy Secretary in the Clinton administration from 1998-2000, “The United States and its allies will invest millions of dollars in two areas of the Colombian economy, in the areas of mining and energy, and to secure these investments we are tripling military aid to Colombia.”

One of the major changes in the mining law was to extend mining concessions to corporations from the original 25 years to 90 years and granting foreign mining companies exclusive mining titles. The author then goes on to explain how miners organized to fight these changes. The result was massive military repression from both the Colombian army, but mostly through the paramilitary forces, which are fundamentally an extension of the government army, what Human Rights Watch calls the “Sixth Division.” Cuellar provides several specific examples of military repression in communities either resisting economic exploitation, or in some cases, communities that happen to be in close proximity to mineral extraction locations. In almost every instance the author claims that the military or paramilitary forces justify their actions by claiming that the villagers were guerillas or collaborating with the guerillas. In addition to outright massacres and assassinations, thousands of people have been displaced from mineral rich areas of the country.

The last part of the book talks about a specific campaign organized by the miner’s union (Sintramienergetica), a campaign that included a lawsuit against one US mining company Drummond. This Alabama-based company was “sued for conspiring with paramilitary groups to exterminate the union.” The campaign is very similar to the Stop Killer Coke Campaign, in that they seek to educate people about what Drummond is doing in Colombia and to gain support to hold Drummond accountable for its actions. The Profits of Extermination is a great resource for those who care about economic justice and want to participate in solidarity work in the Americas.

Aviva Chomsky and Francisco Ramirez Cuellar, The Profits of Extermination: How U.S. Corporate Power is Destroying Colombia, (Common Courage Press, 2005).

Cochabamba: Water War in Bolivia

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Too often it seems these days that those who spend time trying to challenge the power of corporations and the financial institutions that stump for them rarely draw attention to the insurgent efforts around the global that have achieved small victories. In reading Cochabamba, not only did I enjoy reading the story of how Bolivian citizens kicked out a corporate demon like Bechtel, I discovered that there was a years in the making popular movement.

In this book, Bolivian activist Oscar Olivera tells the story of how after years of top down neo-liberal economic policies had devastated the economy people began to organize new forms of civil society. In many ways the massive demonstrations that sent Bechtel packing from were just the most visible manifestation of how many Bolivians have organized their brand of resistance. Long before the State granted Bechtel the rights to privatize water, Bolivians were responding to the oppressive consequences of neo-liberal economics.

The result of grassroots organizing has led to what are known as the Constituent Assemblies (CA). The CA is a forum of governance that is more democratic than many of the previous popular movement institutions throughout Bolivia. In some ways the CA is similar to what were called the Aguas Calientes in Chiapas by the Zapatistas, and are now known as the Carracoles. The similarity resides in the fact that they do not seek to take over the government, rather to “create space where people can decide their own future.” The CA has come about in part, due to the lack of authentic representation or democracy in other political organizations, particularly political parties. We would do well in the US to heed these words “The Constituent Assembly is a form of recovering and exercising political sovereignty, that is, of gaining the capacity to make and to execute public policy. This capacity is currently mortgaged to the system of political parties.”

Those involved in developing the CA have commented that the neo-liberal policies have actually had a great deal to do with creating this alternative system of organizing and resistance. This according to Olivera is crucial, since in the end popular resistance can not last if it is just reacting to narrow campaigns like that which responded to Bechtel.

More importantly, this resistance must lead to other forms of social organizing. This book not only is a powerful anti-corporate globalization testimony, it is a lesson for where the rest of us might invest our energy in future organizing.

Oscar Olivera in Collaboration with Tom Lewis, ¡Cochabamba!: Water War in Bolivia, (South End Press, 2004).

The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas

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For those involved in Latin American solidarity work over the past 20 years, the School of the Americas has been a common enemy in the struggle for justice. This new investigation by Leslie Gill not only provides some new information, but raises serious questions for the movement that has been attempting to close this US-based terrorist training camp.

Gill begins with some new information on what forces were behind the school’s move to Georgia in the early 80’s. A successful lobby campaign was spearheaded by local business people, particularly Sal Diaz-Verzon Jr. and his sister, Elena Amos. Gill describes them as extremely anti-Castro immigrants who made a fortune in the insurance industry.”Elena was married to the founder of the insurance giant AFLAC and Sal Jr. was the company president from 1978-92. Working with the local Chamber of Commerce and several Georgia legislators, the AFLAC fortune had a great deal to do with the school relocating to Georgia. In many ways it makes sense that Anti-Castro Cubans who were incensed with the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua and the other insurgent campaigns of the early 80s would want to support an institution like the School of the Americas. So the next time you see that ridiculous AFLAC duck commercial, you have another reason to

turn the channel.

The book’s strength has to do with Gill’s ability to weave a great deal of interview material throughout the text. These interviews were conducted in recent years with former students, instructors and the current based commander. The commentary by many of the former students is instructive, in that it provides an insight into the mind of those who have continued to participate in the US-backed counter insurgency campaigns in Latin America. In many ways the interviews are the best element of Gill’s book and similar to the revealing commentary provided in Jennifer Schirmer’s book the Guatemalan Military Project.

Gill reveals that part of the indoctrination process at the School was to win over Latin American soldiers to the “idea” of the US. After experiencing the US through the lens of the School, students would act as recruiters to their fellow army members back home. A comment from Colombian General Alberto Gonzalez also reveals the 2-way benefits of students attending the School; “They learn many things, but that is really of second importance. The relations that they establish with others are at bottom the most important. The School also permits the US to have the future leaders of the Latin American armed forces in its hands.”

The book also deals with how the School has responded to the SOA Watch campaign to shut it down. The author spent a great deal of time with the base commander Glen Weidner. Weidner has taken an aggressive Public Relations approach to changing the School’s image and challenging the integrity of the SOA Watch campaign led by Fr. Roy Bourgois. Weidner’s position is very convincing and it raises some interesting points about the the SOA Watch campaign. One of those questions is if the School was not teaching torture techniques would the anti-School campaign still be opposed to its existence?” Here Gill does not pursue a larger issue which is, what is the real function of this School in the larger foreign policy agenda of the US. The author does acknowledge that some in the Anti-School effort do think that the School has “just made some mistakes.” It would have been more instructive to get at the heart of this question, since even if this School in Georgia was closed, it would have little impact on the overall military policy in the region.

The other area that this book falls short on has to do with the last chapter, which looks at the evolution of the SOA Watch movement itself. Gill does acknowledge that the movement has had to deal with the challenges of being a pre-dominantly faith based entity, which in recent years has seen more participation from student, labor and anarchist groups. SOA Watch has, according to the author, begun to allow affinity groups to plan their own actions outside of the official actions, but the author doesn’t really pursue it any further than that. There is no serious discussion about tactics, strategy, nor the campaign’s effectiveness. This would serve the movement greatly, since the military has been responding with their own tactics to the predominantly symbolic nature of the actions that take place every November in Georgia. These shortcomings aside, The School of the Americas is an important contribution to the struggle for justice in the Americas and could be an essential catalyst for new approaches to challenging US military hegemony in the region.

Leslie Gill, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas, (Duke University Press, 2004).

Out of the Sea and Into the Fire: Latin American-US Immigration in the Global Age

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Quite often we hear it said that people migrate to the US looking for a better life. This sentiment not only de-politicizes the issue of immigration, it takes it out of context. Wars and counter-insurgency campaigns in Latin America have certainly forced millions of people north, but since most of the region, minus Colombia, is not engaged in any serious armed conflict why are Latin Americans coming north?

In Out of the Sea and Into the Fire: Latin American-U.S. Immigration in the Global Age, Kari Lydersen provides readers with one of the dominant factors for northern migration in recent decades…globalization. For Lydersen, the IMF imposed structural adjustment policies and the neoliberal economic programs, which have swept across most of Latin America, are the major cause of migration. Over the past several years the author traveled throughout the Americas reporting n the impact of these economic policies, with the hopes of putting a human face on those most affected. The book is divided into three main sections; Latin America, the Border, and the US.

In the first section Lydersen gives examples of current conflicts created by economic policies that have been imposed on communities throughout Latin America. She looks at the dollarization of Ecuador, Coke workers in Colombia, the Bolivian popular movement, fishing communities in Oaxaca, and indigenous communities in the Lacandon forest of Chiapas, Mexico. In each case people have been displaced by economic policies that involved very specific corporations. Whether it is Bechtel in Bolivia, Pemex in Oaxaca or Coca Cola in Colombia, each example highlights the over-riding messages of the book…corporate globalization negatively impacts most people and is at the root of contemporary migration from Latin America.

One example has to do with the indigenous communities in the Lacandon forest in Mexico. For years US-based environmental groups like Conservation International have been denouncing the influx of people into the Chiapas rain forests. They claim that the indigenous communities are the main source of deforestation in that state. The author contests that what the Mexican government has been doing is using groups like Conservation International as an attempt to remove indigenous groups, particularly those tied to the Zapatistas, in order to develop the region for eco-tourism. To underscore this point Lydersen tells readers about what the Isuzu corporation did in 2002. In order for Isuzu to gain access to the rain forest for its annual auto race (the Isuzu Challenge), the company gave cell phones and “satellite systems to aid forest rangers and local authorities in searching, locating and preventing tree theft.” Here Isuzu was employing an increasingly common tactic known as Greenwashing. Companies can cause all the environmental damage they want but if they promote themselves as environmentally friendly they can win over public opinion. As I write this review, the indigenous communities of Montes Azules in the Lacandon forest are being displaced due to economic interests.

The second section of the book moves to the US/Mexican border. Here the author looks at the impact of the maquiladora industry on the Mexican side and anti-immigration realities on the US side of the border. Many of the people displaced in Central America and southern Mexico have ended up in the industrial zones of Mexico’s northern border. Lydersen provides griping testimony from people who work in sweatshops, where labor and environmental conditions have taken it´s toll. She also addresses in one chapter the sobering story about hundreds of Mexican women who have been murdered in recent years in border cities like Juarez.

The third section of the book looks at the growing population of Latin Americans in cities across the US, from the Immokalee workers in Florida to meatpackers in Nebraska, and mushroom pickers in Illinois. These are mostly undocumented workers , men and women who in most cases do the work that most of us in the US won´t do. Many of us have heard of the Immokalee workers in Florida, because of their high profile campaign against Taco Bell, but fewer have heard about the mushroom pickers in Illinois. In the same way that Taco Bell is one of the largest users of Florida picked tomatoes, Dominos Pizza is the primary recipient of mushrooms picked by migrant workers in Illinois. Ironically, as Out of the Sea and Into the Fire demonstrates, the wealth that is generated by these migrant workers, often ends up in the hands of the same transnational corporations that lobby for the so-called “free trade agreements,” the very agreements that force Latin American to leave their communities to come to the US “seeking a better life.”

Lydersen closes the book with 3 personal profiles of Latin American now residing in the US. The following comments from Alexy Lanza, a Honduran immigrant, underscores why I think this is an important book to read, especially for those involved in campaigns against corporate

globalization.

“When immigrants come to this country, we have two choices. We can lose our identity or we can make it stronger. You lose it when you see all the wealth here and you think I want to have a big car, a nice house, this and that. You start forgetting little by little where you came from. But you have to remember that all of these riches are made from the poverty of our countries, from what was taken from us. When you realize that, then your roots become strong. My roots were strong already. But they truly became strong here.”

Kari Lydersen, Out of the Sea and Into the Fire: Latin American-U.S. Immigration in the Global Age, (Common Courage Press, 2005).

The Press Commits Another Sin of Omission: When Rape is Passe

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

On April 13, in the Religion section, the Grand Rapids Press ran an article from Newhouse News Service writer Julia Lieblich about a US nun who is engaged in a protest/ fast across the street from the White House. Actually, the article spends more time talking about the “concern” that National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and his associates are having in this case.

The headline reads “Administration officials make late-night visits to see protesting nun.” The title alone is enough to lead you to believe that they are on some humanitarian mission. According to the article, Lake has paid three visits to Sister Diana Ortiz who has been camped out since April 2. In fact, the article gives more print space to the supposed empathy of government officials than that of the reasons for Ortiz’s actions.

The Press article simply states that Sister Ortiz “was raped and tortured in Guatemala.” No other specifics are mentioned. We are given no date or any testimony from Sister Diana herself about what happened. It is almost as if rape and torture were incidental in this case. The article mentions former US Ambassador to Guatemala Thomas Strook’s challenge of Ortiz’s story, but no one who supports her case is cited. For as much as the article reflects the agony of the government officials on this case you might expect the writer to give equal time to the agony of Sister Ortiz. Not so. The specifics of her abduction, rape, and torture are quite available, however. You can find full testimony in publications such as Report on Guatemala, the Bulletin of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA, as well as a taped interview on Alternative Radio. Any competent journalist could easily find these sources.

Some of the specifics of her case are as follows. She was abducted on November 2, 1989. Her abductors took her to a warehouse-like building, where Sister Diana recounts that she heard “the despairing screams of people being tortured and I watched helplessly as an innocent person was tortured.” She was then questioned and every time she responded men burned her with cigarettes. In all she has 111 burns on her back from the interrogation. She then says, “I was raped numerous times. After pouring wine over my body they used and abused my body in horrible ways that are too humiliating to describe in detail. Then they lowered me into an open pit packed with human bodies – bodies of children, women, and some men, some decapitated, some lying face up and caked with blood, some dead, some alive – and all swarming with rats.” Had any aspect of this testimony from Sister Ortiz been included in the Grand Rapids Press article would it have changed your impression of this case? I think it probably would have.

None of these serious omissions by the corporate media should surprise us though. If we look at the date of the crimes committed against Sister Diana, Nov. 2, 1989, we can make other conclusions about the self-censorship that the corporate media engages in regularly.

According to Noam Chomsky in Terrorizing the Neighborhood, when this story appeared on the AP wire service on Nov. 6, 1989, none of the major media picked the story up, nor were there Congressional calls for an investigation. Just over a month later and right before the illegal US invasion of Panama, George Bush waxed indignantly about what happened to a US woman in Panama. “If they threaten and brutalize the wife of an American citizen, sexually threatening the lieutenant’s wife while kicking him in the groin over and over again – then….please understand, this president is going to do something about it.” (see Stephen Shalom’s Imperial Alibis, pg. 178-79) So, if a US woman is terrorized in a country that the US military is about to invade it is an outrage, but if a woman is terrorized in a country that systematically murder’s its own people (with US government support) it is not worthy of mention? You decide.

Finally the Press article does make mention that Sister Diana is pushing the Clinton Administration to release all classified documents related to her case. They also cite a catholic priest who believes that Anthony Lake’s interest is more posturing than genuine concern. However, the article does not seriously look at the present efforts by the Guatemalan solidarity community in this country to push the Clinton Administration to release all declassified documents related to Guatemala since the CIA-led coup of 1954. In the most recent issue of Report on Guatemala, Jennifer Harbury states that after receiving some declassified documents it is clear that Anthony Lake and other US government officials were either withholding information from her or deliberately deceiving her in regards to the status of her husband Efrain Bamanca Velasquez, who is now believed to have been killed at the hands of CIA paid military officers in Guatemala. No wonder the corporate media is “missing” the real story, it would not only indict the role of numerous US administrations in grave human rights abuses in Guatemala, it would also be self-indicting since the bulk of the information on cases like Sister Ortiz has been available for decades and has not been reported on.

Resurgent Mayan Identity: Human Rights, Elections, and Popular Organizing in Guatemala

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (January 1996)

It was Saturday afternoon in Chichi when we arrived. This was market day where the human activity resembled that of an ant colony. Everyone was busy buying and selling, trading and bargaining. The economic activity of this market economy is radically different from the one that we are used to in the US. It is more of a social event than anything else. Most people who are displaying their wares either made them or grew them. Food clearly dominates the items for sale, thus creating a large potluck atmosphere with people eating and sharing all day long. The smells of the comedores and the sight of tipicas bring great pleasure to the senses, senses that are deadened in the standard supermarket of the North, filled with plastic, preservative, and a multitude of products disconnected from their makers. It is in this vibrant, dynamic setting that the new party members brought their message.

We arrived accompanying members of the newly formed political party Frente Democratico Nueva Guatemala. We were invited to accompany them since the majority of candidates are popular movement organizers who have been on the death squad lists for years and because the government has labeled them an extension of the armed resistance movement. This is a standard tactic used by repressive governments against new parties that advocate anything other than business as usual. This discrediting label did not seem to take effect here in Chichi. The people swamped the pickup truck we were riding in, all extending a hand out to get the literature that was being passed out. Within 30 minutes the flyers and calendars that were being distributed were gone. At first we thought that this was an aberration. Maybe people were taking flyers because it was free or because literature was hard to come by in these rural communities. Our speculations were quickly dismissed when two other party groups arrived passing out their respective flyers. People did not swarm their trucks nor struggle to grab the paper with outstretched hands. While we watched these parties flounder on the street, Maria, a Mayan woman with the Frente, began to speak over a loudspeaker.

People gathered around to hear her powerful words. She spoke with conviction and clarity about the dreams and desires of her people, but she also talked about how her party members have been fighting for justice alongside these people for years. That is why the crowds listened intently and that is why they rushed to take the flyers. All of this was not clear to me at first, because Maria spoke to the crowd initially in Quiche. This was another clear distinction between the Frente and the other parties, they always had local representatives who spoke the local language. Maria did not use much political rhetoric nor did she make idle promises. She spoke as she has spoken for years, about the demand for an end to murder, an end to the disappearance, an end to poverty, and an end to impunity. Only then will the people be able to determine what kind of future they will have.

This scene, like many others i witnessed, reflected the political space that was opening up in Guatemala. A space that was not given to them, but one that they made for themselves. I arrived in Guatemala 3 weeks before the elections on November 12. My intention was to meet with as many people as possible, to gather information, to work on a video about human rights, and to observe the elections. The following is some of the information and experiences of my trip.

Popular Movements and Political Repression

As was mentioned before the public activity of the popular movements is at an all time high. Every time I go back to Guatemala new groups have formed. Some of them form to fill a void in the popular base or to challenge some of the faults of the existing groups. Notable, are the increase of women’s groups and indigenous groups. The women’s groups are more and more challenging the machismo of the ladino and indigenous societies. They have learned from their own experience and that of other Central American women that their issues cannot be subordinate to the revolution. The indigenous groups are also refusing to allow ladinos to set the political tone in a country that has its own form of apartheid, with 60% of the indigenous population still having no effective political representation at the government level. Plus the indigenous groups also do not want to lose their own cultural identity within the national identity, whether that is a totalitarian identity or a nationalist identity.

One of the newest indigenous groups is CONIC, a campesino-based organization that is fighting for land rights by challenging the traditional property system in the courts, but mostly through land occupations. CONIC was born out of the 500 years campaign that has existed in Guatemala formally since the late 1980g’s. Their main objective, aside from autonomy, is to reclaim land that was once theirs. This they believe is fundamental to rebuilding a new society. An enlarged statement on one of their organizational brochures says “The struggle for land, is a struggle for life and peace.”

Another area of increased organizing is with the repopulated communities. These groups consist of communities that were either refugees in southern Mexico since the early 1980g’s or internal refugees who were displaced from their villages and survived in the highland regions. i had an opportunity to spend time with both, once internal (Los Cimientos) and external refugees (Nuevo Mexico in the south coast). Each community was dealing with the lack of sufficient community resources, children adjusting to unfamiliar places and tensions with surrounding communities. At the same time they are essential to the foundation for a new society based upon their experience and ability to survive under extreme circumstances.

Overcoming Impunity

Even with the tremendous political space that has been created by the popular sectors, human rights violations still mar the political landscape in Guatemala. It is in the area of human rights that I spent most of my time, specifically with the group CERJ. This organization, which was born out of the need to resist the forced civil patrol duty of indigenous men that was instituted during Rios Montt’s reign of terror, has now become one of the most outspoken defenders of human rights.

Most of my time was spent between documenting the testimonies of people who had been victims of human rights abuses or witnesses to them, as well as accompanying members of the organization when traveling about since they are constant targets of military repression. In both instances the video camera I brought with was a tremendous asset. One incident that we documented is particularly noteworthy, since it demonstrates the type of repression that most of the groups like CERJ must deal with on a daily basis. Just days after accompanying CERJ members who were campaigning for the Frente in Chiche, a woman and her three children were strangled to death in that same village. This alone was abominable, but to make matters worse the murderers then put up posters throughout the town accusing CERJ of committing the murders. Upon discovering this we went to Chiche to make a public declaration against this defamation of CERJ. The intention of course was to create confusion amongst the villagers, but the murderers made a fundamental mistake, the defamation was written in Spanish in a community where most of the inhabitants could not read and only spoke Quiche. The attempt at character assassination was also a failure since CERJ has won the trust of most villagers by their years of solidarity with Mayan brothers and sisters.

The rest of the country was experiencing similar forms of terrorism. In early October the military entered the community Aurora 8 de Octubre, in Xaman, Alta Verapaz. This was a clear violation of the terms of agreement between repopulated communities and the government that were signed in 1993. When the community members confronted the soldiers, the soldiers opened fire killing 11 people and wounding another 25. This event, which received some international attention, affirmed the analysis of the human rights groups in the country….that some things are not getting better. In fact, most of the groups who have been documenting the abuses said that there have been more human rights violations during the year and a half of President Carpio (the former human rights ombudsman) than during the years of Jorge Serrano. Serrano, the previous president of Guatemala, was forced to flee the country after suspending the constitution and plundering the national treasury. According to the families and Relatives of the Disappeared group, GAM, some 1,433 human rights abuses were documented in 1994. This includes murders, disappearances, death threats, and detentions. In the first 6 months of 1995, GAM had documented over 700 abuses, thus keeping pace with the previous year’s numbers. Still, the major contention that surrounds the issue of human rights is impunity. Everyone knows who is committing the crimes and virtually nothing is being done to stop them. Even the UN, which came out with their 3rd report (early Nov. 1995) in as many years on human rights in Guatemala said “….no one is prosecuted, especially as it applies to the government.”

Vote… if you can

Historically voting has been somewhat of a formality in Guatemala, since most everyone knows that the military runs the show. People either vote out of fear or not at all for lack of faith in the system. Abstention generally claims the majority of votes. This election proved slightly different from the very beginning, not due to the electoral process but to several factors that made the privileged few very uncomfortable.

On October 20, the anniversary of the 1944 revolution, people participated in the usual demonstrations and public rallies, calling on people to reclaim the spirit of that revolution. With the election being just weeks away it added anew sense of revolutionary purpose in the popular movement, especially with the newly formed FDNG. However, a new popular party was not the only thing that motivated people in these tense days.

To add to the excitement and expectations of many people, president Carpio allowed something that most people did not expect. The remains of one of the revolutionary presidents, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, were returned to Guatemala with much fanfare. The FDNG took advantage of Guzman’s return by calling it a “symbol of the return to revolutionary democracy in Guatemala.” This helped set the tone for the Frente as they scrambled to make up for the limited time for campaign organizing.

It was also not only an issue of time for the Frente but also the lack of resources that the “traditional” parties enjoyed. The Prensa Libre said that both PAN and the FRG overwhelmingly outspent the FDNG on election expenses. The money spent on election day alone for party observers, transportation and other expenses were as follows: PAN Q476,100, FRG Q250,000, and the FDNG Q15,000. The FDNG could also not run the types of campaign commercials on the TV and radio that most of the other parties could, nor did they have the resources to give away hats, T-shirts and other paraphernalia with the hopes of buying voters. At one FDNG rally a labor organizer made the statement that “PAN is for the rich, but tortillas, the food of the poor, is what the Frente represents.”

Political violence was evident, especially in the rural areas just prior to Election Day. We saw several military battalions on maneuvers in the Ixil Triangle at 2:00am while traveling on bus from north Quiche. Few of the Frente candidates were harassed, but that was in part due to the fact that most of the candidates were people who have been escorted by members of the international community for the past 10 years. Rosalina Tuyuc, the director of CONAVIGUA, a widow’s organization, was threatened one evening and her vehicle was also stolen just days before the vote. The most ominous form of political repression however, was and remains in the form of poverty. This is something that the Frente kept highlighting in their platform. Democracy cannot exist, nor can you have democratic elections when people are starving. This is something that will certainly plague the country for years to come unless major structural changes are made with the entire system.

All this aside, the most important aspect of this election was the increased participation of the indigenous population. Not in the usual sense of just casting a ballot for some wealthy ladino but in a new way that could be the key to real change in years to come.

“Our cries, pain, and woe from the last several hundred years have begun to end, and now we can begin to listen to our own voices.” This declaration from Nukuj Akpop, a Mayan phrase for “Experiment in Governance,” reflects the present awareness and selfdetermination of many of the indigenous people. Never since the Spanish invasion of Guatemala have indigenous people organized their own election candidates, nor have they had their own platform. Of all the candidates that ran for the Frente, 130 were indigenous, including mayoral candidates, Congressional candidates, and even the vicepresidential candidate was a Quiche Mayan, Juan Leon. This new dynamic gave many great expectations for change and real participatory democracy.

As an election observer it was my job to report on any part of the process that was in violation of election standards, as well as to act as a deterrent to any potential fraud or violence that may occur. I was one of 100 or so independent observers from all around the world. In addition to us there were groups from the OAS, UN and even the Union of European States. These groups had more resources, labeled vehicles, and walkie-talkies to assist in their work. However, they were fewer in number and tended to be in the more urban areas, away from the potentially more volatile rural areas. I worked in the department of Quiche and observed in 5 towns throughout the day.

We did observe some elements of coercion. In Patzute members of the PAN party were giving money to people before they got into line, hoping to buy votes. In San Pedro Jocopilas some parties were displaying party emblems, a violation of Election Day rules. No one could wear a hat, T-shirt, or anything else that had party colors or symbols. Many people also discovered that their names did not appear on the register, even though they had a voting card with a designated number. At the same time there were reports that names of people who had been dead for years appeared on the voting lists. And there were reports of military personnel or civil patrol members around voting stations, also a clear violation. The biggest problem, however, lay with the very structure of the electoral system itself.

Most of the people who came to vote in the areas that I observed in were indigenous. Many of them had never voted before or were not that familiar with the voting process. Matters were complicated by the fact that the voting procedure was in Spanish, thus making it difficult for people who were either unable to read or only spoke an indigenous language. The election representatives at each table were almost exclusively ladino and male. When people had problems, many of them could not communicate with those in charge. The most common thing we witnessed was people were going to the wrong place. Many of the voters had to travel from another town to vote, since not every village had its own station. Upon arriving most people would simply go to the nearest voting site and wait in line, sometimes 2 or 3 hours. When reaching the front they were often told that they were at the wrong voting station. If people were not familiar with the town they were not able to find the other voting stations, and election personnel were not really assisting them. Frustrated, many people simply gave up and went home, never able to fulfill their hopes of voting for change. Clearly the system was fraudulent, at least for the majority poor indigenous population. At one point we decided to tell people which lines to get in when they arrived, since we had copies of the voting station numbers. In spite of these efforts and that of many of the popular movement, nearly 60% of the population either refused to vote or could not because of the difficulties posed by the system.

At the presidential level PAN candidate Arzu was the top vote getter with 36%. Portillo, the Rios Montt-led FRG party candidate, was second with 24%. Of the 19 presidential candidates the FDNG was in fourth with 8%, not bad for the lone oppositional party that had only 3 months to organize. Even the press in Guatemala referred to their position in the results as “A Big Surprise”. At the local and congressional level the Frente did much better. I watched the vote counting in Santa Cruz de Quiche, and at all three tables I witnessed a Frente victory. It was a delight to watch and listen to the vote counters as they kept echoing the words Nueva Guatemala (short for the FDNG). Representatives from the other parties did not seem to be surprised though. These were areas of the country with a Mayan majority and where Frente candidate Amilcar Mendez has worked to defend people’s human rights through CERJ over the past 8 years. Other impressive victories were the election to Congress of Nineth Montenegro, the director of GAM, whom I had escorted for months in 1988, due to constant death threats against her, and Rosalina Tuyuc, who became the first Mayan woman ever elected to Congress.

In spite of these victories, the FDNG went public the day after calling the elections a sham that was fraudulent. On Monday, Nov. 13, the day after the election, the electricity went out in the entire country. We were told that this was the first time that that had ever happened in their history. This means that the election computers went down for awhile, much in the same way as in Mexico in 1988, when it was revealed that the ruling party PRI fixed the election results. We are still waiting on the truth of that mysterious blackout, but many villages did not wait to express their disgust with the election outcome.

A community of recent returnees in the Huehuetenago area were denied the opportunity to vote even though the accord signed with the government granted them that right. In Escuintla hundreds of people were accusing the mayor of fraud. In Santa Lucia Milpas Atlas, a crowd of people set fire to tires calling for a re-election for mayor. People in San Miguel Acatan were so disgusted with the results that they burned the ballots. In Guanazapa, Escuintla, PAN supporters beat several people and took election council representatives hostage. These types of public protest were repeated in Tecun Uman, Olintupeque, and San Aguastin Acasaguallas. As of this writing many towns are still protesting the election results and some are threatening to boycott the January run-off between Arzu and Portillo for the presidency.

It still remains to be seen what will eventually happen with the final results of the election. Many people are wondering how the Frente candidates will fare in Congress or if they will live that long. People are also speculation on whether or not the Frente can deal with internal party problems that have plagued other regional democratic movements. Many things remain uncertain, but one thing is for sure, the majority of the population wants a change. I have no doubts that they will continue to struggle for an authentic democratic society in Guatemala, but as long as US policy remains the same there it is questionable as to whether the Guatemalans will ever be able to achieve authentic democracy.

Why Give a Damn about Guatemala?

If people have even bothered to read this piece on Guatemala, they might be wondering of what importance it has to people living in Grand Rapids. My response is this – US corporate exploitation of most Guatemalans has been going on for at least a century, causing loss of land, poverty, and death. Our consumption of their labor contributes to this vicious cycle of misery. The US government has directly been involved with repressive political policies at least since 1954. This has meant that Washington has directed and supported the bloody political structure in Guatemala that has caused over 200,000 deaths since 1960. Our tax dollars have helped to pay for this brutal repression with the funding, training and arming of one of the worst militaries in the hemisphere

These policies have caused thousands of refugees to flee Guatemala, many of whom have made their way to Grand Rapids. This exacerbates the already difficult economic conditions in Grand Rapids as people fight for jobs with companies looking for the lowest bidder. Since “our” system is inherently antagonistic to “foreigners”, their misery is often extended here. Now, I realize that most of this takes place without our knowledge. This is no surprise since the GR Press more or less chooses to ignore the political realities there. They printed only one piece (with no sources) on Guatemala that was 3 column inches high on the last page of section A on Nov. 12. They received a fax that I sent them a few days after the election, but failed to print it or contact me upon return. So it goes.

I also realize that most of these decisions, ones with brutal outcomes, have been made without our input and no doubt will continue unless we do something. The point is that it is in Washington’s and corporate America’s best interest to maintain these unjust dynamics. They will not change unless WE change. I emphasize we because it must be a collective response. A response that is predicated on our developing a relationship with Guatemalan people and personalizing their suffering. It is my experience that we can count on their continued involvement in the struggle, what is not clear is what our involvement will be.

Is That a Banana in Your Pocket? The Politics of Cultural Imperialism and Corporate Misogyny

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (September 1994)

Last month I was riding my bike south on Plainfield Ave. and while waiting at an intersection I was assaulted by the message on one of the hundreds of billboards that clutter the Grand Rapids landscape. It was a Meijer ad celebrating the 50th anniversary of what is now marketed as the “perfect food”… Chiquuita Bananas. To most people the thought of the “perfect food” elicits visions of banana splits, sliced bananas with cereal and every back packer’s favorite, banana chips. What most people are not aware of are the profoundly political and historic implications of banana trafficking. This article will seek to discuss the political impact of banana production in regard the USA foreign policy, using Guatemala as a case study. I also hope to discuss the sexualization of bananas and its impact within the dominative culture.

The Tentacles of Corporate Control

Bananas originally come from Southeast Asia, but with the influence of colonial trade bananas then became a staple for Africans living on the Guinean coast. The European slave trade of Africans then brought this “slave food” to the Americas. Once a wealthy Bostonian and other US elite’s found bananas a delicacy that set in motion the wheels of another capitalist venture.

Around the turn of the century the United Fruit Company (UFC), headed by Sam the banana-man Zemurray, brokered a deal with the then dictator of Guatemala, Manuel Cabrera. United Fruit was given hundreds of thousands of acres of land in exchange for the promise of constructing a transcontinental railroad in the “land of eternal springs”. For nearly 40 years this agreement also meant that UFC enjoyed tax exception, cheap labor due to forced labor laws and the cooperation of the Guatemalan military in the event that banana workers might decide to be unappreciative and organize. The political clout of the UFC (also known as El Pulpo – the octopus) was not threatened until the 1944 Guatemalan revolution and the subsequent land reform laws.

The revolutionary, yet pro-capitalist, governments of Arevalo and Arbenz eliminated the forced labor laws and allowed labor organizing throughout the country. Although this upset the UFC it was land reform that initiated the first CIA led coup in the Western Hemisphere. According to Jim Handy’s recent book Revolution in the Countryside, “under the Agrarian Reform Law, land expropriations began in early 1953, and by August of that year close to 250,000 of its (UFC) 350,000 manzanas had been taken.” (pg. 171) It should be noted however, that this was idle land, land not in use for production by the UFC. In addition the Arbenz government willingly compensated the UFC monetarily as it had done with all other land expropriations. This was a moot point for the UFC and its political elite’s in Washington. Noam Chomsky states that there were other issues at hand, namely US hegemony. “A State Department official warned that Guatemala ‘had become an increasing threat to the stability of Honduras and El Salvador. Its agrarian reform is a powerful weapon; its broad social program of aiding the workers and peasants in a victorious struggle against the upper classes and large foreign enterprises has a strong appeal to the populations of Central American neighbors where similar conditions prevail.'” (Year 501, pg.37)

Allies, Propaganda and “Operation Success”

Even before the UFC had land expropriated, plans were underway to dismantle Guatemala’s experiment with democracy. Numerous books have been written about the litany of UFC’s bedfellows within the US government (see box), so let’s just say that it gets very gray when attempting to determine the difference between corporate and government interests.

In order to assert US hegemony in Guatemala a variety of allies were recruited, most notably the father of modern PR, Edward Bernays. Bernays was hired to boost UFC’s public image and pave the way for a USA invasion. Bernays was responsible for establishing a “Middle America Information Bureau” to supply company “facts and figures to American and Latin journalists.” In the early 1950’s Bernays was able to convince the corporate media that the “Reds” were taking over in Guatemala. “He persuaded the New York Herald Tribune to send a reporter, Fitzhugh Turner, to Guatemala in February 1950. Turner’s series, called ‘Communism in the Caribbean’, was based primarily on conversations with United Fruit Company officials in Guatemala; was splashed across the paper’s front page for five consecutive days.” (Bitter Fruit, pg. 85) Soon the rest of the big newspapers got in on the act and sent journalists to Guatemala “to document what was said to be the advance of Marxism there”. Bernays then set up the group tours in Guatemala to further his propaganda campaign. “Between early 1952 and the Spring of 1954, Bernays put together at least 5 two-week ‘fact-finding’ trips to Central America, with as many as ten newsmen on each one.” (Bitter Fruit, pg. 87)

Once the work had been done at home, attention could be given elsewhere. A CIA transmitter was mounted on top of the US Embassy in Guatemala so as to project the “proper messages” to the people. The CIA also recruited Guatemalan Catholic Bishop Mariano Arellano to pen a pastoral letter that exhorted the populace to rise “against communism, enemy of God and the Fatherland”. The CIA facilitated this ecclesiastical scandal by dropping the bishop’s message out of 30 of its planes. Other Latin American client states lent their support, like Somoza’s Nicaragua, which allowed invasion training to take place on its soil. Therefore, in the June of 1954 the CIA led invasion, known as Operation Success, ended Guatemala’s 10 years of democracy. Colonel Castillo Armas, who was flown in on the US embassy plane was promptly declared dictator. He quickly rolled back any and all gains of the popular movements; eliminating unions, land reform and repressing popular struggles. More importantly this event signaled to the hemisphere and the rest of the world that where US corporate interests and political hegemony are at stake, no one could seriously threaten those interests.

Sexual politics of Bananas

The billboard I mentioned at the beginning included the figure of the Chiquita mascot, a characterization of former Hollywood actress Carmen Miranda. Miranda, a Portuguese born singer, was recruited by 20th Century Fox’s Darryl Zanuck to contribute to Hollywood’s own “Good Neighbor Policy”. Miranda, as some may remember, was a tall slender Latina who often wore outrageous clothes with fruit and flower filled hats. She became the feminine symbol of Latin America “and next to coffee was Brazil’s chief export”, says Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano. Miranda’s character as the Chiquita banana woman was to the banana industry what Juan Valdez is to the coffee industry, a bastardization of cultural norms. Not many Latin American women look like Miranda, their skin is generally darker and their economic reality does not afford them the opportunities that Carmen had. What is most interesting about the Chiquita banana woman character, was that she was half woman half banana, and like bananas Latin American women would be devoured.

When huge banana plantations were first set up in Latin America men were the primary source of labor used in production. However, a plantation made workforce always has its effects on women. Eventually company towns would spring up, since most of the laborers were seasonal. This always meant the “need” to forcibly recruit women as sex workers. In Cynthia Enloe’s book Bananas, Beaches and Bases, she starkly documents this impact that these export driven economies have on the local populace, especially women. She also says that “the feminization of agriculture – this, leaving small scale farming to women, usually without giving them training, equipment or finance – has always been part and parcel of the masculinization of mining and banana plantations.” (pgs 136-37) Behind every all-male banana plantation stands scores of women performing unpaid domestic and production labor. Since automation has entered the banana plantation dynamic, women too have been embraced as paid workers.

While visiting a banana plantation on the Atlantic coast of Honduras in 1992, I was amazed by the almost endless sea of banana trees that surrounded you on both sides of the road while the bus rolled past the small housing hamlets that were constructed by the company. Women now made up 100% of the banana-packing workforce, minus the supervisors. Women spend 10-15 hours a day, sometimes 7 days a week, sorting through bananas and then soaking them in a highly toxic substance. In my one-hour visit to the packing station I had 6 different women ask me, in desperation, to marry them so they could go to the US and leave their misery behind. I never felt angrier in my life at that point, not with the women, but because this transnational corporation was literally devouring these women’s lives.

At home bananas are marketed to appeal to housewives who shop and mothers who care about their children’s nutrition. In our imperialist culture the women whose lives are devoured by our manufactured consumer need is little known. What is known are phrases like “is that a banana in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me”, a sexualized, fetishized phrase that has become a part of our misogynist culture. It disgusts me that the fruit that is casually referred to as a man’s penis is the same fruit, that by the nature of its production, enslaves and slowly eats away at the lives of countless women.

When sharing this information with people I often here the response “at least it provides these people with jobs”. This type of response shows little understanding of the structural or root issues at hand. Historically people have been forced off their land by big business. If they were not forced off their land the companies made it difficult for people to sell their products in the market because the big companies could sell it cheaper or the governments of these countries started to import food from the US that undermined the local economy and diet. US taxpayers’ money has been used all throughout this process of destroying the local economies and creating dependence amongst the local populace. People work on banana plantations because most of the time there isn’t anything else. When people have tried to regain land that had been taken or tried to revive the local economy they have been raped, tortured or murdered by US trained and funded death squads. So let’s think twice before we give the usual privileged, elitist response and let’s work for economic justice and solidarity with banana workers worldwide.

United Fruit/US Government Connections

John Foster Dulles – US Sec. of State – former lawyer for UFC

Allen Dulles – Director of the CIA – Like brother had done legal work for UFC. Together they organized “Operation Success”

John Moors Cabot – Sec. of State for Inter-American Affairs, brother of Thomas Cabot, the pres. of UFC.

Walter Bedell Smith – Under Sec. of State – served as liaison in Operation Success, then became board member of UFC.

Senator Henry Cabot Lodge – US representative to the UN – UFC share holder. Had on various occasions received money from UFC for speeches in the Senate.

Ann Whitman – personal sec. to Pres. Eisenhower – Married to UFC public relations chief.

Robert Hill – US Ambassador to Costa Rica – Collaborates on Operation Success, then became board member of UFC.

John Peurifoy – US Ambassador to Guatemala, known as the butcher of Greece for his past diplomatic service in Athens. Spoke no Spanish.

* excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire, Volume III – Century of the Wind